Wimbledon – 2009 Contenders

As we face into the second week of Wimbledon, there have, as of Monday morning, been no real upsets in the men’s draw, certainly not of the same scale as the French Open.  Therefore it is probably time to access the competition and consider who will be champion come Sunday evening.  Of course, if Nadal was not injured, we would all be gearing up for a replay of last year’s final, at least those of us not consumed by Andy Murray-itis.

The first contenter, Andy Roddick is seeded 6th and despite the two other seeds in his draw will probably fear Lleyton Hewitt most of all in his run to the quarter finals.  Hewitt has nothing to lose and has won his first three rounds in straight sets, unlike Roddick.  The Australian’s win against Del Potro has undoubtedly boosted his confidence however Roddick has beaten Hewitt in their last four encounters.  The American will surely see the absence of Nadal as an opportunity to regain the position he held in 2004 and 2005, as the opponent of Federer in the final.

The next contender in the draw is Andy Murray, the 3rd seed.  After his win at Queens he will be certain he can do the same at Wimbledon.  However, if he sees just a fraction of the media coverage which his progress is attracting, he will need some big shoulders to carry the sense of expectation on.  While the hype and attention actually helped Tim Henman, mainly because the BBC et al knew that he would not win the competition but that every step he progressed was an achievement, as Andy Murray plays each match the attention turns towards the next one immediately.  At least one British paper last week printed out the list of players they expect Murray to meet, up to and including Roger Federer in the final, and how he will beat them.  This pressure will certainly take its toll.  Wimbledon is a tournament where experience counts for a lot more than current form so his single Grand Slam final is unlikely to prepare him for the week ahead.

On the other side of the draw is Novak Djokovic, one of the select few who have managed to win a Grand Slam title in this Federer/Nadal dominated era, a title which he earned by beating Roger Federer in the semi-final of the Australian Open.  Djokovic will fancy his chances but has not, as of yet, reached his full potential at Wimbledon, he has only played four previous tournaments and had to retire due to injury in 2007.  With a possible semi-final encounter against Federer it is unlikely the 4th seed will reach the final, this year at least.

Thus we are left with said Roger Federer, the 2nd seed, but by default, the highest ranking player.  While he always wears his emotions on his sleeves, in the literal sense of tears on his Nike polo shirts sometimes, his relief at the French Open final was obvious.  The mental hurdle of equalling the record of 14 Grand Slam victories had been overcome.  The 13th and 14th had proven hard to come by, with plenty of tough matches in the French Open despite Nadal’s early exit.  A huge amount of pressure has been lifted from Federer and while there will always be a sense of expectancy on him to do well at Wimbledon, he has proven, four times in fact, that he can come back and reclaim his title.  Roger made his disappointment at Nadal’s absence at Wimbledon this year clear but that will not stop him taking full advantage of the situation and, in my opinion, taking the title.

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The Problems for Real Madrid

The irony has not been lost on anyone who has listened to the news in the past fortnight, the headlines report job loses, falling prices and national banks which require even more assistance from a government already strapped for cash, while the sport news, which follows, informs us of a €94 million transfer fee for a football player.  This only a few days after a €68 million fee was paid for another.  These excessive prices provide evidence that the global recession is not nearly as global as we expect.

However, the problems which these fees create are many.  Firstly there is the obvious problem, Real Madrid have paid €162 million on two people, not a whole team.  There are no guarantees that the players, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, will automatically fit into the side and that they will be able to lead the team to success.  This is probably not a huge concern for the team as both have signed six years contracts so there is plenty of time for them to find their feet.  This is an aspect of the game which the players have some element of control over, unlike injuries which pose a much bigger problem.

Regardless of a player’s price, he is still as likely to get injured as before and this is one of the biggest gambles Real have taken.  Just this year Kaka was out for a month with an ankle injury while in 2008 he was out with a more prolonged knee injury.  Ronaldo has hobbled off the pitch on several occasions in the past season with everything from a groin injury to a sore hip.  Just a few days before he signed his contract with Real Madrid he was shopping in Los Angeles rather than playing for the Portuguese national team due to a suspected hernia problem.  Both players are likely to take knocks, as happens to every footballer, but perhaps this is a risk Real are happy to take?

The bigger risk is probably the money itself.  The money used to pay for these players has been sourced from commercial earnings, match day takings and television rights.  As we have just seen in the past week, Setanta Sports are in trouble and while BSkyB and other larger television groups are unlikely to collapse in the upcoming season, the lack of competition means that they will be unwilling to pay above the odds for television rights.  Likewise, commercial earnings and match day revenue will undoubtedly fall as the ordinary supporter finds it harder to fund trips to football matches and buy replica kits.  While the new Ronaldo jersey will undoubtedly be on the top of many summer wish lists, with recession comes less consumer spending so it is unlikely they will earn the €94 million predicted.  All this does not take into account the huge debts which Real already currently hold.

However, the only thing which really should matter is whether or not these signings and any others which follow will help Real Madrid to win games and titles.  Just a month ago, Ronaldo played against Real’s biggest rivals and despite their lack of a solid defence he failed to score a single goal.  The biggest challenge Madrid now face is not money, or fitness but Barcelona.

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The GAA and the Recession

While in recent weeks it has seemed like sport has separated itself from the recession. Irish people have found comfort, entertainment and perhaps most of all distraction in the victories of Shane Lowry at the Irish Open and Leinster in the Heineken Cup final. However, sport and those who play it are not immune from the effects of the recession and as we head into the summer and the GAA Championships, it is becoming all too clear that footballers and hurlers are also experiencing the negative effects of the downturn.

We do not expect an amateur game to be affected by a weak economy, after all, unlike the Premiership, GAA clubs do not have to fork out several million euro in wages each week. All that is required is a group of young men or women who live in the county or near enough to attend training a few evenings each week. Unfortunately, as more of these young people leave college and are faced with few job prospects and others are let go from their current jobs, staying in the county and devoting time and energy to the GAA must take a back seat. Many may have to leave the country; others may need to commit themselves solely to the search for employment. This leaves the GAA and its many clubs in a worrying position. However, there may be some hope in the form of a new website set up by the Gaelic Players Association, http://www.gaelicplayers.com/jobs. Companies advertise jobs which are directly aimed at gaelic football, hurling and camogie players. The website has been live for less than a day and already eleven jobs have been posted across all areas, four in sales and marketing, two in manufacturing/operation and others in tourism and engineering to name a few. Regardless of the area, someone who is committed to a Gaelic club shows that they are willing to work as part of a team and are truly dedicated, qualities any employer would hope to have in a new recruit. Of course, a highly successful player can also act as a public face for a company, such as Seán Og O’hAilpín who works for Ulster Bank.

But will this be enough for the players and the GAA itself?  In all likelihood it will only help a small proportion of those looking for work. Even if the eleven jobs currently posted are all given to GAA players, that makes up less than one full football or hurling team. Between the hurling and football championships, 45 teams will compete this year for the Liam McCarthy and Sam Maguire cups. Perhaps more jobs will be advertised on the GPA website, but if the jobs are not available, a website will not be enough to keep players at home. It is inevitable that teams will lose players in the very near future but regardless of a player’s commitment and our own desire to be entertained by gaelic sports this summer, a mortgage and a family will always, and should always come first.

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The Battle between Ferrari and the FIA

In the past ten years the FIA, the governing body of motor racing has tried to make the Formula One World Championship more competitive and more exciting.  It was felt that the pinnacle of motor racing had become too predictable and unexciting for the average viewer.  With much higher safety standards and safer cars, the chance of accidents was significantly lowered – while being a positive development for those involved – it did remove a certain element of unpredictability from the sport.  When, by 2004 Michael Schumacher had won seven World Championship titles (five in a row since 2000) the FIA set about ensuring such domination would never happen again.

Rule changes became one of the FIA’s favourite pastimes.  Some of these rules have been radical, in 2004 teams were restricted to one engine, and this has been modified in recent years to allow only eight engines in a whole season.  There has also been a selection of regulations introduced regarding tyres and development, including testing.  The rules proposed for next year will see cars unable to refuel during pit stops.  All of these changes have succeeded in making Formula One more unpredictable and have ensured that no team has been as dominant as Schumacher and Ferrari.  Unfortunately, much of the excitement in the current season has been created because the FIA rules have been unclear and has allowed certain teams to find loopholes which have given them an advantage.  The FIA will not care about this as the Championship has seen one of the greatest surprises in the sport’s history in the form of Brawn GP.

However, in their enthusiasm to remove Ferrari from the top of the sport and encourage new teams to join Formula One, the FIA has completely forgotten what the sport is about – the teams.  While Manchester United continue to be the dominant force in English football, the FA has not tried to stop their assent as they are well aware that millions of viewers are attracted to the Premier League because of the clubs and it is they who have the real power.  By trying to impose budget caps on Formula One teams, the FIA are alienating the key components of the sport – the most important and most powerful of which is Ferrari.  Formula One teams are not afraid to act on their threats, in 2005 all cars using Michelin tyres refused to race at Indianapolis because of safety concerns leaving just six cars in the race.  Ferrari’s threat to pull out of next year’s championship, along with Red Bull, Renault and Toyota, has to make the FIA sit up and listen.  Attracting new teams to the competition will be pointless if the biggest name in motorsport is not on the grid.  Just as we associate the Premier League with Manchester United as its most successful team, we think of Ferrari when we think of Formula One.  Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone are now less concerned with making the sport entertaining and are more worried about financing it.  However, their regulations and their proposals have put the sport in danger because without Ferrari, there is no Formula One.

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Chelsea & Didier Drogba

While Didier Drogba may have apologised for his actions after the Champion’s League semi-final, the negative effects will not disappear so quickly. Of course there are the immediate after shocks; the tarnishing of a great game of football and a comeback which rivals Liverpool’s in 2005 and the certain punishment which Drogba will face from UEFA in the coming weeks. However, his actions, and the actions of his teammates will affect both the team and those who watch the game every week.

Anybody who has ever been to an underage weekend football match will know the influence the players in the Premiership have on young boys and girls. Every goal celebration has been perfected to imitate their favourite football hero, whether it is a simple hand in the air, the infamous head in the shirt or a complicated twist and tumble combination. When Robbie Fowler sniffed the goal line, during a goal celebration in 1999, he was fined and banned for four matches by the FA. Not only was he punished for antagonising the Everton fans, but because it was clear his actions influenced those who were watching at home. What young Chelsea fans saw on Wednesday evening was a master class in how not to deal with defeat. All aspiring professional football players will encounter defeat, not just on the pitch, and will have to learn how to manage their feelings when they are faced with it. These young boys want to be Didier Drogba, play like him and live like him and will, in all likelihood, imitate him in any way they can. All players must be aware of this but unfortunately, the Chelsea team appeared to forget their responsibility at the final whistle.

It is probably too much to hope that the Chelsea players will control their reactions in the future in order to be good role models to the children watching in the stands and at home. However, it is clearly in their best interest to start acting more maturely and sooner rather than later. Even during the match the commentators had to wait for a replay every time they saw a Chelsea players fall to the ground in order to decide whether the challenge had been fair or not, so common are their dives and exaggerated rolls on the pitch. After the events of Wednesday, it is unlikely that any referee, in a 50/50 foul or penalty situation, will find in favour of a Chelsea player. Perhaps some of the decisions were poor, however, after their childish displays, Chelsea will almost certainly find more of their appeals falling on deaf ears in the future.

Drogba may be sorry, but his teammate John Terry stood up for him and claimed that his actions were right. As long as they continue to show this lack of respect for their opponents and referees, Chelsea and those who support them will suffer. The only result which their protests had was to cement an already widespread opinion that Chelsea players are unsporting and immature.

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Rugby in Croke Park

Regardless of your interest in sport, any Irish person would find it hard to avoid the talk of the Leinster – Munster Heineken Cup semi-final.  There are several reasons for this.  After Ireland’s success in the Six Nations, the country has been waiting for another display of sporting excellence; alas we cannot expect this to come from other team sports such as soccer so have had to wait for the return of the rugby players.  And while the Irish love donning a green jersey and uniting in sporting patriotism, they embrace equally the opportunity to fight one another on the sports field.  However, the most talked about aspect of this match, perhaps even more than who might win the encounter, is tickets.

The run up to this game has seemed more like the run up to an All Ireland Final than a Heineken Cup semi-final.  The venue, the enthusiasm and the desperate, I will sell a kidney for a ticket, search for a place in that stadium in Drumcondra would quite understandably make you think it was September.  Some say it is all part of the excitement and makes you appreciate the ticket even more if or when you get one.  In fact, between the episodes of sheer stupidity shown by the Irish government in the past week, talk of tickets and ‘where are you watching the match?’ has proven to be a pleasant distraction.  However, the one fact which everyone is trying not to think about is this; in a year’s time, if this event were to happen again (which is certainly possible) the same amount of people would be searching not for one of 82,000 tickets but one of 50,000.

The Aviva Stadium, while undoubtedly world class in quality will always remain inferior to Croke Park in quantity.  Rebuilding on the Lansdowne site was probably not the best option and in fact the proposed Bertie Bowl, in my view, would have been a better choice.  While many doubt the need for two high class sporting venues in a city of one million people, what this weekend shows is that unless the GAA are willing to reach another compromise regarding non-Gaelic sports, the IRFU and the supporters will lose out in the future.

An argument I have heard recently is that rugby and Croke Park are not best suited to one another, in other words, the design of the stadium makes it difficult for many to fully enjoy the game because of the angles and distance from seat to pitch.  Having often sat at the top of the Cusack Stand I can appreciate how difficult is must be to see a game in which the ball often remains on the ground unlike Gaelic sports which are predominantly aerial.  However, not once have I heard anyone claim that they would prefer to stay at home to watch the match than have a seat, good view or bad, in Croke Park.

Over the past three years history has been made by the Irish rugby players in Croke Park, history which has completely overshadowed the past which prevented the game being played there for over a hundred years.  If this is one of the last great games of rugby to be played on the pitch then today is a sad day for Ireland.  GAA headquarters has proven to be a welcome home for rugby and I hope that even after the completion of the Aviva Stadium the gates to Croke Park will remain open to the game.

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Snooker World Championship – A time for change?

Much has changed at the Crucible in the past few decades. Gone are the days when a player smoked a cigarette while his opponent was at the table, the title sponsor, the cigarette manufacturers Embassy were pushed out in 2005 due to British law, Michaela Tabb became the first ever woman to referee a match at the championship in 2003 and the competition is set to move to a purpose built venue sometime in the future. However, one thing which has remained the same is the format of this great competition. Any self respecting snooker fan will clear their schedule for the Sunday and Monday of the May bank holiday weekend, hoping that the final will be a classic and last early into Tuesday morning.

However, while loyal fans embrace the traditional format and regard the two weeks spent in Sheffield as the epitome of snooker, the sport has of late seen a lot of criticism for not adapting and attracting new viewers. One of the harshest critics of the sport is Ronnie O’Sullivan, probably the most entertaining and exciting players of his generation. He claims the sport is ‘dying,’ and hopes that something will be done to increase support. It would seem that something may come in the form of a ‘Super 6s’ format in which the colour balls will remain but the number of red balls will be reduced to six. Their aim is to attract younger audiences to the sport and emulate the success of Twenty20 cricket.

I can certainly understand the situation the snooker world finds itself in. In this modern era of twenty four hour televised sport the amount of viewers at home can have as great a financial impact on a sport as the number of supporters who go to see the action in person. We have already seen new rules introduced in rugby union to make the game faster and supposedly more entertaining for television viewers. Twenty20 cricket was introduced to make the game shorter and closer to the average time span of popular team sports. However, Twenty20 cricket was never envisaged as a format to replace the traditional one unlike this new proposal. We must wonder if this is the future for professional sports? Should the short attention span of someone who has access to twenty five sports channels really dictate the way sport is played?

While the realist in me accepts that this is almost certainly the case and that in order to generate enough money to keep the sport alive television revenue is necessary, I do believe that long after the person in their living room has moved on to the next station, the true fans will be left with a sport completely different to the one they fell in love with. So while this new ‘Super6s’ format may well attract new viewers, it should not alienate the current audience. I am certainly curious and would like to see this format in action but not on the first weekend of May every year and not at the expense of the epic encounters that the World Championship always provides.

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